In 2014, NPR ran an April Fools’ Day experiment. They posted an article to Facebook with the headline “Why Doesn’t Anybody Read Anymore?” Immediately, the responses poured in. People liked and shared the article, commented on what a shame it was, and quickly pointed their fingers toward eBooks, cell phones, the short attention span of kids today. They answered the question of “why doesn’t anybody read” with answers that summarize the worst suspicions and stereotypes about the downfall of society. They did everything, it seems, but actually read the article.
Because the text of the article was not, in fact, about why people don’t read anymore.
“Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day!” read the actual piece. “We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.'”
The comments and reactions proved something that NPR — and anyone who works in social media, traditional media, or almost any public-facing industry — could have told you based on anecdotal evidence, which is that people, especially online, often form opinions quickly and without all of the information. Additionally, people will share and comment on social media posts without actually clicking through.
If you work in an industry where you monitor human behavior, you know this to be true. Though a Facebook post or Tweet about your blog post is getting tons of engagement, the pageviews may be next to nil, or the other way around.
First, let’s look at what kind of things people share.
According to a global survey from Social@Ogilvy and SurveyMonkey, people share media on social platforms for several reasons. First, responders say they share to promote a cause or an issue. Next, they say they share to keep in touch. 13% of respondents said that “content sharing helps to define their personality.” And yet, just 38% of people say they share content that is considered to be “informational.” Almost the same percentage say they share content that is “entertaining” — i.e., not promotional of a cause.
Which also means that people don’t actually share for the reasons they say they do. Instead — and respondents in China actually did cop to this — they share information and content that helps define their personality.
A different study, this one shared by AdWeek, found that 68% of people share “to give a better sense of who they are and what they care about.” Which seems to map a little more closely to the behavior that we see online; people share things to further causes and promote them, sure. But they also do so because doing so reflects on them as a person.
So when people see an article about how no one reads anymore — if they consider themselves to be big readers, or at least, they’d like people to perceive to be a reader — they comment and share because it furthers that perception. But if sharing is so personal and so attached to our perceptions of ourselves, wouldn’t you think we’d want to read the things we share before we share them?
Statistically, no. Even if you click on an article, you’re unlikely to read it. And clicking and sharing are certainly not synonymous or even close.
“When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing,” writes Farhad Manjoo for Slate, who spoke with a data scientist from Chartbeat, a website that calculates engagement on websites. “[The] data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.”
Tony Haile, Chartbeat’s CEO, took it a step farther on Twitter.
“We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading,” he noted. He also shared this graph, showing the disparity between read time and sharing:
What this chart shows us is that there’s an active divide between what people read and what they share. Which means you, as a provider of content, are kind of between a rock and hard place: Do you provide the kind of content that people really do read, or the kind they share?
It’s a pretty known fact that chasing likes and engagement for the sake of likes and engagement is a fruitless venture; they’re worth nothing monetarily and don’t necessarily mean more people are going to pursue your company’s offerings. But what this behavior also shows is that the most-shared content is, also, often the least-read.
The best explanation for this is probably the simplest: There is just too much to read, all the way through, in a given day. Additionally, the things we do read all the way through, while interesting, may not be the same things that we think our friends would find interesting, or would reflect on us. The sweet spot, it seems, is content that is interesting enough to read and relatable enough to share. Though always chasing that kind of content might end up tanking either your read rates or your social engagement — forcing you to choose. Do you want clicky content that gets reactions, or do you want thoughtful content that people read, but don’t share? And at the end of the day, if you knew that regardless of the quality of your content, you knew that only about 15% of readers would make it past the first few paragraphs, would that change the way you provide content?
It shouldn’t. The bottom-line (since you’ve already made it this far) is this: Social shares are interesting metrics, but they certainly don’t define how many people are seeing your content or even familiar with your brand. However, if you do want to drive shares, you need to provide the kind of content that people relate to and feel is important or interesting enough to share, at least, theoretically. And as infuriating as it may be at times, those Upworthy/BuzzFeed/whoever headlines actually really do work, because, regardless of whether or not anyone actually reads the article, the headlines alone make the content sound like something that a person might want to share, even if they didn’t read the article. So the article gets shared which, maybe, means it gets read. But not necessarily.
So what do you, as a content provider do?
Easy: You continue to make the best content you can. Because if it’s strong content, people will read it. Maybe they will share it. But at least you’ll be able to know that you provided the most informative stuff you can, and that your audience — the ones who really do read, because yes, people do still read — will continue to be satisfied.